London is hardly fresh to praise as the artistic capital of the world.
This extends to religious cultures, many of which have established bases of learning in university faculties, museums, and sacred landmarks alongside traditional Catholic and Anglican strongholds. To the surprise of perhaps even London’s residents, Buddhism also enjoys a firm foothold here. Robert Y. C. Ho, the Chairman of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, made a generous donation in 2012 to the Courthauld Institute of Art to kick off a Masters program (jointly taught with professors from the School of Oriental and African Studies) dealing specifically with the study and preservation of Buddhist art – a remarkable first for the persistently Eurocentric Courthauld.
Along with a slew of other events that cemented London’s growing part in a revitalized interest in Buddhist spirituality and art, London remains a premier destination for those who prefer the discreet, low murmuring-environments of museums and carefully-tended displays. Each locale houses a particular strength, but it is certainly worth going to all three – after all, they are all in relatively close proximity to each other and can make for a perfect day out. Try this circuit: take the Tube to Knightsbridge and walk to the V&A Gallery, before heading back to the Harrods’ zone for lunch. Then Tube it again to King’s Cross and swing by the British Library to see the Diamond Sūtra and grab afternoon tea, before heading to Russell Square to see the Buddhist treasures at the British Museum – you’ll finish right on time for dinner at the Brunswick near Russell Square.
The V&A Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery
Established in April 2009, the Gallery is the Ho Family’s most recent contribution to London’s Buddhist cultural life (until the Foundation’s renewed involvement in 2012). Formally named “Buddhist Sculpture in Asia”, the Gallery is nestled comfortably near the Museum Café. You are never far away from a hearty meal or light refreshments as you replenish yourself to your heart’s content amidst the smiling Buddhist sculptures. I’ve written a more systematic review of the Gallery on the Museum’s online journal here.
The British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Gallery
One of the most well-known flagship treasures of the Gallery is its copy of the Diamond Sūtra (Or.8210/P.2), and it is the world’s earliest dated printed book (868 AD). The original text is even older, dating back to 401 AD. While it might not seem like the most impressive holy text, those interested in philosophy might find the actual contents of the Diamond Sūtra immensely intriguing. Full of paradoxes and logical conundrums, the scripture tells the story of the Buddha (the quintessential character in all Buddhist scriptures) teaching his disciple Subhuti about the illusory nature of forms, concepts, and even thought. For one to reach the state of psychological freedom and liberation called Nirvāṇa, one needs to reliance on all conceptual attachments, and allow one’s natural enlightenment to manifest. The British Library also has the tremendous advantage of being the headquarters of Dr. Susan Whitfield’s International Dunhuang Project, an academic imitative to preserve texts across Asia (many of them Buddhist).
The British Museum’s Joseph E. Hotung Gallery
Covering China, India, and Southeast Asia, the British Museum has one of the largest collections of cross-cultural Buddhist artifacts in the UK and the world (and as you can probably tell, Robert Y. C. Ho, Robert H. N. Ho, and Joseph E. Hotung all hail from the Ho Family). I found the Pure Land triad (Amitābha Buddha, Avalokiteśvara, and Mahāsthāmaprāpta) display perhaps the most breathtaking, although there really is an artistic piece for everyone’s tastes here.